When this possibility came up at The Record, I felt it would give me a chance to test my instincts fully, as an editor, and to be in charge of a news organization with a journalistic heart. The old slogan of this paper was “Friend of the People It Serves.” I could feel it; from my formative experience here 40 years ago, I felt that after all this time, I still knew it well.

The Borg family—Mac, who was the young publisher when I was here and now is the patriarch and chairman; his son Stephen is the publisher; his daughter Jennifer is the general counsel—when I came out here, we all talked. Something just clicked. It was an odd hiring interview because it was listening to three owners talking about how this paper should be tougher and on the case and chasing stories diligently, and that’s what they wanted to see. You put it all together and here I am.

You’re only four months into the job. What are your top goals?

The publisher asked me that. Before I came last December, he said, “Give me your three goals.” The goals I listed were: try to make all of our journalism as good as our best journalism, to pursue investigative and watchdog journalism as vigorously as we can, and to embrace the Web and the digital future as much as we possibly can. Those are three broad goals and then, in the doing, something I strive for is to really energize our report by finding issues, chasing them, not letting go of them.

For example, we talked about the life of a virtually homeless guy whose car blew up in Hackensack because he had emphysema and he had oxygen tanks in his back seat. One thing I’ve been trying to encourage is to stay with a story, to really own it. We had that original story about that incident—the car goes up in this huge explosion, gigantic fire. This guy, much against his will, is pulled out of the car, by a Good Samaritan. It was against his will because he had all his papers and everything in this car and he didn’t want to lose them. Then, what we did was say, “Well, this is one of the richest counties in America. Who are the homeless here? Is this guy representative? Is he anomalous? Where are they?” Same reporter [Stephanie Akin] goes back and does just a classic story in my book about homelessness in suburbia and how this person and probably a few hundred other people people live—cheap motels, cars, staying with friends, trying to keep their lives going. As she told this story, it became more and more amazing—not just what he had to do as a person, but his long roots in the area. His father was working in a factory here that I think closed in 1942.

So then, who saved him? Well, it was a guy who worked in an aquarium tropical fish and aquarium store that was right next to the car.* He saw the car in the parking lot, he saw smoke, and he ran over. What was this guy’s story? He grew up in Bergen County, he got a high school degree, his wife has one. They can’t afford to live in Bergen, so they live in Hudson County, I think in Union City. He wants to go back to college—salt of the earth guy. He says, “When I think about my family and my kid, I honestly can’t tell you I’d do the same thing a second time.” The headline was, “The Reluctant Savior.” We have terrific photography. There’s a fellow named Marco Georgiev, who did work from Eastern Europe for the Times and is here now. He took a portrait of the guy in the parking lot with his arms folded, at a certain time of day.

From the crash, we had a great story, then a great story about what the life of the person in the car represented in our community, a great story about the person who saved them, as a person and what he represents, and then a presentation, the picture—completely compelling.

Mike Hoyt was CJR's executive editor from 2001 to 2013, teaches at Columbia's Journalism School and is the editor of The Big Roundtable, a startup that is a home for narrative writing.